Teaching the Mother of God.
Lessons from the Proper, according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite:
Sirach 44:1, 10-15.
Psalm 132:11, 13-14, 17-18.
The Memorial of Saints Joachim & Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary.*
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3:16 PM 7/26/2014 — Today we celebrate the grandparents according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the parents of the Mother of God. It's an interesting celebration in light of the fact that we don't know them from the Holy Gospels. Everything we know—or think we know—comes from apocryphal literature: the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Protoevangelium of James. None of these books were accepted by the early Church as being inspired by God;—which is why they're not in the Bible—but, they had a great following in the early Church, particularly the Protoevangelium or “First Gospel” of James, which dates to about the year 150. In the first three centuries of the Church, before the books of the Bible were codified with certainty, portions of the Gospel of James were read in Church on the feasts of the Mother of God in various places in the Christian East: by the Greeks, the Syrians, the Copts, and by Arabian Christians; and, as a result of this, devotion to St. Anne in particular become popular throughout the Church and eventually spread to the West, where the legends of her early life continued to develop until she became one of the most popular saints in the Western Church.
The Gospel of St. James gives the following account:** In Nazareth there lived a rich and pious couple, Joachim and Hannah (or Anne). They were childless. When on a feast day Joachim presented himself to offer sacrifice in the temple, he was repulsed by a certain Ruben, under the pretext that men without offspring were unworthy to be admitted. Whereupon Joachim, bowed down with grief, did not return home, but went into the mountains to make his plaint to God in solitude. Also Hannah, having learned the reason of the prolonged absence of her husband, cried to the Lord to take away from her the curse of sterility, promising to dedicate her child to the service of God. Their prayers were heard; an angel came to Hannah and said: "Hannah, the Lord has looked upon thy tears; thou shalt conceive and give birth and the fruit of thy womb shall be blessed by all the world." The angel made the same promise to Joachim, who returned to his wife. Hannah gave birth to a daughter whom she called Miriam (or Mary). And it should be noted that this story is almost a word for word reproduction of the Biblical account of the birth of Samuel, whose mother was also named Hannah.
When I first went to the seminary in New York, behind the main altar in the chapel were three large murals of scenes from the childhood of Jesus from the Gospel of St. James, which had been there since the end of the 19th century when the place was built, and it was while I was there that the decision was finally made to paint over them.
Whether the pious stories contained in the so-called Protoevangelium of James, and the other books which seemed to be based on it, are true—and few in the Church today believe they are—is irrelevant. The Church celebrates this feast as a kind of surrender to the popular devotion of the faithful who refused to give up this devotion, in spite of the insistence of Fathers of the Church, like St. Jerome in the 4th century, and the Council of Trent in the 16th, that these were not true books of the Bible. There's nothing in these books that's heretical, and even the Council of Trent said that no one endangers his faith by reading them; but, they are not the inspired Word of God, and the Church will not guarantee that any of these stories are true.
What I find interesting to meditate on from time to time is what life must have been like growing up with someone conceived immaculately. The Mother of God didn't just fall from the sky; she had parents. Whether they were named Joachim and Anne or Chester and Debbie, it had to have been an interesting life raising a girl conceived without sin. They say that the most difficult people to live with are saints, and I can believe it; I live with a saint. Father Paul is a very holy man, and that's very annoying. I want to watch the baseball game, and saints have no interest in such things. On the other hand, the fact that our Blessed Mother was conceived immaculately did not automatically make her disposed to the will of God; that had to be taught to her. And when we reflect on her life—her acceptance of the message of the Archangel at the Annunciation; her agreeing to marry Joseph under very trying circumstances, while already with child; following her husband around to Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, the trip back by a roundabout route, all because her husband was being given messages in his dreams—all this presents to us a person who was so attuned to the will of God, that nothing God asked of her could surprise or repulse her. She had to be taught that. And she was taught that by her parents.
There is no doubt that Joachim and Anne—or whoever they may have been—had to have been an exceptional couple. And it seems to me that they make the perfect patron saints for those who struggle in raising their children, or who have struggled and who now need intercessors in heaven as they continue to pray for their children in adulthood. There are so many people who need that help: parents whose children are married outside the Church, or whose children are having emotional problems or behavioral problems, or a thousand other situations in which children cause unbearable heartbreak to parents who did the best they could for them, which never seems to be enough. It's just a fact of life.
Those of you who have children may often wish that you had been blessed with children conceived without sin, but you weren't. But you do have two patron saints who stand ready to offer their help. Let the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne give you comfort; and, during the Mass and the Holy Hour to follow, let's add to our many prayers and intentions, an offering for our parents, our children, and for parents and children everywhere, that they may grow in grace, and learn, as the Mother of God herself learned from her own parents, to be ever accepting of the Holy Will of God.
* In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, this feast commemorates only the Blessed Virgin's mother, and is a feast of the 2nd Class. In the Ordinary Form, it is a memorial (feast of the 3rd Class) and commemorates both of Mary's parents.
** The remainder of this paragraph is a paraphrase, not a quote.